VisitDallas CEO resigns under pressure

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Phillip Jones, the embattled CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, announced Wednesday that he is stepping down.

Jones, who has been accused of using city-paid travel to compete in international races has held the position since 2003.

“This is a mutually agreed-upon separation,” said Dallas City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, one of two council members on the board of the convention bureau, which changed its name to VisitDallas in 2016.

She said Jones and the VisitDallas executive board put together an agreement for his exit earlier this week, which will likely include a severance payment. Jones is paid $700,000 a year.

Jones has been the focus of scrutiny since a city audit released in January found VisitDallas has provided murky, debatable data on hotel occupancy and other key measures of its performance. The audit also found that VisitDallas mixed its revenue sources without proper accounting, in violation of state law, and failed to make a required annual payment for maintenance of the city’s convention center.

The audit noted that Jones used his expense account to buy personal items, including a $543 Tumi backpack. He purchased $7,000 in what he declared as gifts, although Jones failed to provide information on who the items went to, as required by VisitDallas policy, the audit noted.

Auditors also found Jones used a car service while traveling, even though Uber or cabs were available, and routinely exceeded per diem limits on hotel rates and meals.

“It’s a good decision,” Gates said of Jones’ resignation. She noted that next week, the city council expects to hear more details on the governance of VisitDallas, as the city continues its effort to improve its oversight of the agency, which receives $30 million a year in public money, primarily from the city’s hotel tax.

Gates said she does not think Jones is leaving because of any malfeasance.

“I don’t think anything illegal has been uncovered,” Gates said. “But he has been under a lot of scrutiny and obviously, next week, more scrutiny. I think he wanted to move on [so that the efforts could proceed] without him being the focus.”

In the wake of the audit, it was discovered that VisitDallas had failed to clearly document advance payments on a $400,000 retention bonus given to Jones.

Detailed documents on his spending, as reported by The Texas Monitor in February, show that between 2014 and 2018, Jones spent $303,000 on airfare for 168 trips and an average of $76 a day for ground transportation. Jones also spent an average of $372 a night on 130 nights in hotels during that period, according to those reports.

Last month, The Texas Monitor reported that Jones ran Ironman races in 2014 in Quebec and in California in 2015, both as part of trips for events promoting Dallas. In 2018, similarly, he ran races in Paris and Norway.

In all but one of those instances, the races were held in or within about 80 miles of the city where the visitors bureau event took place. In the case of the Norway race, the visitors bureau had organized a major media event in London at about the same time, and Jones took a separate side trip from London to Haugesund, Norway, to compete.

VisitDallas said the CEO paid his own expenses for those additional days. But records provided to The Texas Monitor by Visit Dallas did not verify that statement.

A press release from VisitDallas said Jones would pursue “other opportunities.” Jones said in the release, “I’m proud of our accomplishments and know the organization is on track for continued success.”

Jones’s chief critic has been Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs, who said the CEO’s departure stems from a combination of public demerits, from the alleged extravagant spending to last week’s appearance of Jones in a promotional photo in a public relations magazine, sitting in an “expensive chair, wearing very expensive clothes.”

“This just reinforced how out of touch the culture at VisitDallas is,” Griggs said. “It’s long past time for Phillip Jones to leave the organization.”

Jones’s contract ran through 2020. According to the contract, the two parties can decide on the severance amount. While the council has no say on the amount, Griggs noted that inside critics on the council have been able to push the VisitDallas board to become more responsible stewards of public money.

“I don’t think he deserved a severance,’’ Griggs said.

An interim successor to Jones is expected to be announced Thursday at the VisitDallas office.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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Steve is a veteran journalist, who has previously worked at the Dallas Morning News and the Washington Times, as well as Texas Watchdog. His work has appeared in the Houston Press, Miami New Times, People Magazine, and High Times. He also travels the country writing true crime books. His work has won awards in national, regional, and state contests.

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